By Bill Finley
A $32.4-billion budget proposal announced Tuesday by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy does not include a $20-million annual subsidy that has been split between the state's Thoroughbred and harness industries.
The story was first reported by the website njonlinegambling.com.
The subsidy was signed into law in 2019 as a way to help New Jersey's struggling tracks, the only tracks in the region that did not benefit from revenues from casinos. The bill called for $100 million in subsidies to be paid out over five years but also had a provision whereby it was subject to an annual review.
“With this funding, New Jersey can continue to offer one of the most exciting horse racing experiences in the nation, while also providing a boost to an industry that is integral to our economy,” Murphy said when signing the original bill.
Murphy's budget proposal called for deep spending cuts as the state tries to deal with the financial hit it has taken due to the coronavirus. According to reports, the state has taken on an additional $4 billion in debt stemming from the pandemic.
The next step in the process is for the Legislature to draft its own budget bills. A final budget must be passed by Sept. 31. Dennis Drazin, the chairman and CEO of Darby Development, the operators of Monmouth Park, held out hope that the final budget will include the subsidy.
“It's a little premature for me to say anything,” Drazin said. “The last time around, this wasn't in the budget address either or in the first budget. We worked very hard with the legislators and ultimately we received it. In my mind, this does not mean the subsidy is dead or it can't be resurrected. It's just that it is a process that is going to take some time.”
Prior to the subsidy, Monmouth had been having a difficult time keeping its purses competitive with those in neighboring states and had seen the racing product suffer. The $10-million infusion had a positive impact on racing as it allowed the track to raise purses. The same maiden special weight race that went for $36,000 in 2018 has had a purse of $45,000 this year. The additional money also helped revive the New Jersey Thoroughbred breeding industry, which had all but ground to a halt in the years prior to 2019.
The 2020 subsidy has already been paid out, so the earliest this could impact racing would be next year.
The subsidy has had a similar impact on the harness racing industry. The Meadowlands has enjoyed a revival since the subsidy went into effect and is no longer at a big disadvantage when trying to compete against racing in the slots states like Pennsylvania and New York. Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural said losing the subsidy would be a major blow.
“This could be devastating for our industry,” he said. “It would be just horrible to lose this. In harness racing, it has been a success, especially on the breeding side. All the numbers in New Jersey, the stallions, the mares bred, have gone way up. It accomplished what we said it would accomplish. This is a byproduct of COVID-19. We were not blind sided by this but we were still hoping they would include it in the budget. The good thing is we have until the end of September to get them to change their minds.”
Gural said the decision whether or not to reinstate the bonus would likely fall into the hands of the Legislature and called on those in the Thoroughbred and standardbred industries in the state to reach out to their elected officials.
“It's not a done deal but it certainly is important that anyone living in New Jersey who has any contacts with the legislature do their part,” he said. “It's really up to the legislature to restore the money. People have to reach out to them and make the argument that this has been worth the money. The state will lose more without the subsidy than with the subsidy because of all the jobs that will be lost. Tell them how important this subsidy is and how many jobs will be lost if it goes away. It would devastate the industry.”